Friday, June 3, 2016

POST #122: JANE JACOBS WHERE ARE YOU WHEN WE NEED YOU?

City of Stamford manhole cover, Franklin St.

I figure all my readers know who Jane Jacobs is, but a couple of days ago I told a friend that I was going to write about Jacobs and my well- educated and literate companion said “Jane who?” So I guess I better not take anything for granted and explain who "Jane Who?" is and why she’s so important.


Terra Cotta frieze, former U. S. Post Office, Atlantic Street
In the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs wrote a surprise best-selling book entitled “Death and Life of Great American Cities;” it revolutionized the way people thought about city planning and what made for a “livable” city. Every planner I ever met got hooked on the field through this book; one even told me he read it by accident (because there was nothing else available) in a tent on a Peace Corps assignment in the Andes Mountains. He was so taken by her innovative ideas that upon returning home, he signed up for graduate school and became a planner. Little did he know that the field was not filled with idealists and profound social observers like Jacobs but with technocrats whose primarily skill was planning driveways for corporate garages.

Algonquin Building,
corner Lower Summer and Main Streets
Jacobs was not a trained architect or planner. Although she worked on the editorial staff of an architectural magazine she did not even have a college degree. In a way, this was fortunate because she did not have to unlearn all the LeCorbusier-based, modernist bullshit being taught in academia during that time, laying the groundwork for the urban renewal projects that needlessly destroyed many of our older inner cities (including Stamford.). Her knowledge came from observation of people and places, what worked in an urban setting, and what didn’t. She began observing her own neighborhood: the West Village in New York City, mostly low and mid rise dwellings with a diversified mix of social classes and activities. It was a neighborhood where you would leave your keys with the local grocer to give to out-of-town guests who were arriving while you were gone. From there, she went on to analyze other cities that “worked,” coming up with a set of observations that she put down in her book. “Short blocks,” she observed, were preferable to long ones. Slow traffic rather than speedways. Mixed uses, small, mom and pop stores, bars that were open late at night provided eyes on the street. She knew that the high rise housing projects proliferating all over cities at the time were not going to work; that parents could not adequately supervise their children from twenty stories up the way they could when they were playing in the yard beneath their window. If you haven’t read “Death and Life” there’s still time. Everything in it is as true today as it was then.

Inverted Ionic porch column, 48 Pleasant Street
Although Jacobs managed to save her own neighborhood and what is now SOHO from the mega highway builder, Robert Moses, in places like Stamford, it is as if she never existed. Here, whatever feeble attempts are made to plan for people not profit soon gets overpowered by the megabucks.  In my youthful innocence, I once thought that “highest and best uses” meant planning that most benefited the residents of a community. Stupid little me! It has nothing to do with that: The field of planning is now dominated by the so-called “Market Realists” who believe that whatever the market wants is what cities should let happen. And it’s going on now as if Jane Jacobs never existed and nobody had ever read her book and thought: “Now there’s somebody who understands what makes a city a great place to live.”

Now, why am I writing about Jane Jacobs in what is supposed to be an “art blog?” Well, to me, a livable city with its mix of architectural styles and street life IS a work of art. There’s an aesthetic to urban living: watching the characters at Curley’s Diner or checking out the latest bistro on Bedford Street or admiring the terra cotta fa├žade of the Palace Theater or the glorious Classical colonnade on the front of the Ferguson Library. There isn’t a new building in town that has any soul or aesthetic appeal to it; nothing that would encourage you to think that this is a place where you would actually want to live.